Forging a world: fictional anthropology

In today’s post, I’ll share a look at creating humanoid species in a consistent manner, and share bits of the process in my own story.

Creating humanoid creatures in general

Fantasy worlds often feature several kinds of humanoid creatures of varying shapes and sizes. They range from relatively normal and usual types (dwarves, elves) to all kinds of half-beasts (werewolves, mermaids) or other strange creatures.

Some writers give little background for how these creatures came to the world’s present as the reader sees it, while other create detailed backgrounds. Many are somewhere between both ends. As with everything, moderation is key: elaborate backstory in a 250-page book will dilute the story while a series of 800-page books will allow it to be told by bits.

Either way, some level of background makes a fictional world feel more realistic, because it shows that there’s more to it than just the current struggle.

How to create life

There are pretty much three ways a creature can come to be in fantasy: evolution, creation, and alteration.

Creation

By ‘creation’, I mean creatures that came to be by full or major intervenion of greater power – such as gods or demgods. Such method is fitting for a setting with the existence and direct (at least in past) involvement of such powers.

Inspiration for this type of creation is at hand – many religions feature it in some form. In fantasy, an often-used approach is the conflict of two higher powers (usually good and evil) which create ‘units’ to fight for them. Such approach then strengthes the bond between the gods, the creatures, and their mythology as they’re interconnected.

Alteration

Alteration can be similar to the case above – instead of ‘forging’ an unit from the scratch, a higher power uses an existing creature as a base and transform it to be better (usually gifting it better intelligence and some specific traits/abilities).

There are two more options for alteration, though.

One of them is spontaneous: in a world filled by powerful energies, those very energies may transform the creatures in their vicinity. Similar to the first case, this can be a powerful worldbuilding element, especially if the source of the alteration is also a source of magic or some other kind of power.

The third is ‘manual’. This is often tied to villains: in their dreams of conquest, they may experiment with altering creatures (or their minions) into something stronger, something that would fight their war without questions and better than an ordinary human(oid).

Evolution

Evolution is a long-term natural process during which a species adjusts to the conditions which they live in, to the point their form may change drastically, given enough time.

While this process is mostly natural – and this case can, again, help show how the world changed over time – evolution can be given a hand. This is the case of domestication – but fantasy authors can explore selective cross-breeding of humanoids as part of villain’s experiments.

How to reveal the origins

Choosing a fitting place to reveal such a backstory isn’t an easy task if it’s not directly tied to the world’s mythology or power/magic system and thus needing at least a light explanation early on. For that purpose, alteration and creation tend to be easier to ‘drop’ on readers. The lack of a fitting moment might be one of the reasons why some stories never deal with this aspect of world-building.

There are subtle ways – but these may be way too subtle. If a world follows realistic rules, the fact two creatures can breed together (half-elves being a common fantasy example) is a hint that they have some degree of common development.


Fictional anthropology of Eternal Defenders world

I haven’t thought much about the backstory of the humanoids in my story for a while. I only touched it when drafting the second book in a small mention – the MC comes across an ancient elven castle, taken over by one of the antagonist forces. Knowing only the name, he gaves its history a look as he prepares to take it by force.

That was when I started to think about elven history going deeper than the stories I plan to tell, but it took a while before these became serious thoughts. On the other hand, as mentioned above, human-elf half-bloods were something I planned to include and thus a hint that there was a common history between elves and humans.

I eventually thought about what could this be. Or, rather the other way around: what was the dividing point. I was not starting empty-handed: the major difference is that humans, unlike elves, are incapable of using magic. Thus, the option of magic being involved (spontaneous alteration by the definitions I set up above) was a likely scenario. And I had a place where that could’ve happened: the Sacred Forest.

Eventually, I’ve came to a scenario that uses evolution in the early stage and spontaneous alteration in the later stages. While some parts are still in flux, the current scenario has the various humanoid species split at some point of (or just before) the hominid stage: humans and elves having similar evolution to our real world, trolls being branch from chimpanzees (with a light level of alteration allowing them to use simple magic) and dwarves being a branch I’m still to finalize (with a touch of shamanistic magic).

As for the division of humans and elves, there’s a story in place I’m exploring more but the short way to tell it would be that the last common ancestor split into two groups – one heading towards the future human-inhabited area and the other to the sacred forest, the energies inside altering them to eventually become elves (including their longevity and special physical traits). Since that part is worth of a bit more exploration, it’s a topic I’ll likely revisit, and end this post here for now.


So, that’s a wrap for now! I’ll welcome your experience as both readers and writers. So, share your preferred methods. What’s the most intriguing origin of species when reading? If you’ve tackled something like this, what was your favorite – or frustrating – part of the process? What have you learned? Gained any experience and tips you’d like to share? I’m curious, so feel free to share.

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